CFD's future hinges on retirement costs, ambulance
By MARY BROWNFIELD
Published: Dec. 3, 2010
CARMEL’S FIRE department is a local institution, with its 73-year-old firehouse on Sixth Avenue and its quick response times in a city where most homes have names instead of numbers.
But with costs of maintaining it as a stand-alone department going through the roof, the city is studying options for its future including contracting with Cal Fire or the City of Monterey to run it, or joining several other fire departments to form a single agency.
Because of the complexity of the options, they should be presented for extensive discussion at a city council workshop sometime this month or next, Carmel city administrator Rich Guillen said Wednesday. He hopes the council will set a date for the debate during its regular meeting Dec. 7.
“Because it has been such a long time trying to get to where we are, and it’s such a complicated issue, we will probably have a town-hall meeting or a workshop,” he said, instead of hashing it out at the council’s monthly meeting.
The debate over how best to operate the department began shortly after CFD Chief Bill Hill retired in 2001. To save the expense of a full-time chief, the city hired then-Carmel Valley Fire Chief Sidney Reade to oversee the fire department. In 2004, the city contracted then-P.G. Fire Chief Andrew Miller to step in.
Questions need answers
Monterey Fire Department took over PGFD in late 2008, and Carmel has continued contracting with Monterey for the services of its chief and other administrators. Their agreement is set to expire at the end of the year, but Guillen said Monterey agreed to a one-month extension in hopes the workshop will yield action on a long-term solution after he lays out all the options and their estimated costs.
He wouldn’t reveal the dollar amounts, which haven’t been finalized, but said operating CFD as a stand-alone agency is likely cost prohibitive, and forming a regional department isn’t feasible at this point, because Seaside firefighters aren’t willing to participate. Contracting with another agency, such as Cal Fire or the City of Monterey, or even a merger, seems the most likely option.
But councilmen Jason Burnett and Ken Talmage want some critical questions answered before they vote on any proposal.
“It is by no means a foregone conclusion the way we are going,” Burnett said.
Monterey’s firefighters can take labor disputes to binding arbitration and have generous retirements coming due in the near future which, in the event of a P.G.-style merger, could put Carmel on the hook for bills it may not want to pay.
“It would be irresponsible for Carmel’s city council to sign up for an undisclosed but potentially multimillion-dollar liability,” Burnett said.
In addition, the city could outline exactly what it wants from Cal Fire, including contracting only for chief and administrative services, while leaving the Carmel firehouse intact, Burnett offered.
Talmage focused on the importance of ambulance service. Carmel is the only city on the Monterey Peninsula with its own ambulance, and the majority of the calls to which the fire department responds are medical in nature. In 2009, for instance, the fire department fielded about 1,200 calls. Of those, only 22 involved fires, while 779 were medical in nature.
“Do we want to continue to have our own ambulance service? And if so, how is it going to interconnect with the various options for fire?” Talmage asked. “What are the needs of this community, and what is the best way to meet the needs of this community? You have to find an option that weaves in the ambulance service.”
Monterey Fire’s last proposal made no mention of ambulance service, according to Talmage.
Guillen said another concern is that the city’s firefighters not be moved out of Carmel. “We would want a commitment from Monterey or Cal Fire that existing firefighters stay where they are,” he said. “Unless they want to leave on their own.”
Firefighters still favor Monterey
Carmel firefighters have been vocal in their support of a merger with Monterey Fire and their opposition to a contract with Cal Fire.
In an email addressed to “Friends, Citizens, Workers and Visitors of Carmel by-the-Sea,” veteran CFD Capt. Mitch Kastros asked for support of a contract with Monterey.
He credited MFD with providing trustworthy leadership and strong training that has allowed the two agencies to streamline their operations and work cohesively. And since they already work so closely together, Kastros said, Monterey’s takeover of CFD would “involve very little lead time,” and would therefore save money.
He also said Carmel firefighters want a contract with Monterey so they would not have to rely on assistance from neighboring agencies during a major fire and would be assured the Carmel station would remain open 24/7.
Furthermore, according to Kastros, Monterey Fire is working to cut administrative costs, and he reported CFD firefighters would forego the 8.75 percent pay raise they are supposed to receive Jan. 1, 2011, if the council approves a contract with Monterey.
“I am asking you to please help me to help you insure you will continue to receive the best levels of service from your fire department,” he concluded.
But what’s best for Carmel firefighters might not be best for Carmel taxpayers, Burnett countered.
“My primary concern is what’s best for Carmel,” he said. “And it may very well be that there are certain situations that are in the firefighters’ interest that are not in Carmel’s interest.”
“The structure of the contract with whomever is critical,” Talmage commented, because it can deal with such issues.
“I hope the debate doesn’t get into who’s a better fire department, because I think Monterey Fire Department is excellent, and I think Cal Fire is excellent,” Burnett added. “It’s not who’s better, but more a question of financial issues and ongoing control.”